Steelers’ collapse unprecedented – and baffling
For the Pittsburgh Steelers, the worst collapse in NFL history
by a reigning Super Bowl champion is as maddening as it is
Barely a month ago, the Steelers were 6-2 after winning five in
a row – beating the Chargers, Vikings and Broncos – and were well
positioned not only to win the AFC North, but to take another run
at the Super Bowl. Ben Roethlisberger was enjoying a career year
statistically, the defense was as nasty as ever and the Steelers
had the look and attitude of a champion.
Then, somehow, it all got away from them. Blame it on Troy
Polamalu and Aaron Smith getting hurt. Blame it on a delayed Super
Bowl hangover, blame it on overconfidence, blame it on a lack of
preparation, blame it on an inability to close out close games.
Right now, there’s a whole lot of blame to go around.
For the Steelers (6-7), finding the words to explain a five-game
losing streak that has wrecked their hopes of repeating as Super
Bowl champions is proving as difficult as covering a kick
To Hines Ward, the collapse is “embarrassing.” To
Roethlisberger, it’s “disappointing.” Ryan Clark calls it
“despicable, sad.” Most of the Steelers call it baffling, because
none of them saw it coming.
“We’re better than that,” Ward said following the Steelers’
13-6 loss in Cleveland on Thursday night. “We should play better
than that. I can’t pinpoint why we are losing. We all have a hand
Only one other Super Bowl champion lost five in a row the
following season, and the 1987 Giants deserve an asterisk because
they used replacement players during part of that
What most troubles the Steelers is who is beating them.
A year ago, the Steelers survived one of the toughest schedules
in NFL history to win their sixth Super Bowl, facing the Eagles,
Ravens (twice), Chargers, Giants, Cowboys, Colts, Patriots and
Titans during the season.
This season, their losses to the Browns (1-11 at the time), the
Chiefs (2-7 at the time) and Raiders (3-8 at the time) rank as
three of the biggest upsets in the NFL all year.
The Browns were last in the NFL in total defense and were
playing without five injured starters – in essence, they were using
their replacement team – yet they held the Steelers without a
touchdown and sacked Roethlisberger eight times.
Back when the Steelers were 6-2, the games against the Chiefs,
Raiders and Browns looked to be a springboard to a high seeding in
the AFC playoffs. Instead, they’ve caused their season to
Asked if the Steelers still are a good football team, coach Mike
Tomlin said, “Based on recent trends, in terms of our record and
how we’ve played recently, you cannot say that.”
As a result, the Steelers will be playing out the string in
December for the first time since 2003. Even in 2006, when the
reigning Super Bowl champion Steelers started 2-6, they won six of
their final eight to make a late run at the playoffs.
These Steelers could win out by beating the Packers, Ravens and
Dolphins to finish 9-7, yet that probably wouldn’t be enough to
make the playoffs, given their 1-4 division and 4-6 conference
records, which factor into tiebreakers.
“People are going to question what has happened to this team,
and I really can’t say,” Ward said. “I don’t know. You are going
to find out a lot about this team in the last three games. We will
figure out who is going to quit and who is going to go out and
continue to fight.”
The Steelers experienced several late-season collapses like this
during the midpoint of former coach Bill Cowher’s career. After
reaching the AFC championship game three times in four seasons,
they went 7-9 in 1998 after starting 7-4 and 6-10 in 1999 after
being 5-3. However, they rebounded to go 13-3 in 2001 and 10-5-1 in
Now, Cowher’s successor is involved in his first crisis in his
three seasons as coach, one that seems likely to result in changes
in personnel, his coaching staff and, perhaps, philosophy. Tomlin
promised changes before the Browns game yet made very few; perhaps
he’s waiting for the offseason – and it will be here soon enough –
to make them.
Figuring why they give up so many long kick returns would be a
good start. The Steelers have allowed four kickoff return
touchdowns, compared to 10 for the other 31 NFL teams combined.
First, though, there are three games to play – three games that,
only a few weeks ago, seemed likely to determine whether this would
be a good Steelers season or a great one. Instead, they’re three
games the Steelers can’t wait to finish, if only because the season
can’t end until they’re played.
“We, as a group, have to come together and continue to go out
and fight these last three games,” Ward said.